Can Bayreuth really tackle Meistersinger?

Die Meistersinger is a problematic opera, particularly for Bayreuth.  It has rather disturbing elements of German nationalism and a performance tradition at the festival of those being used for ends that most people would rather be able to forget.  No surprise then that Katharina Wagner’s production, recorded in 2008, tries to deal with both.  It’s a bold effort.  Like Robert Carsen’s Tannhäuser it tries to use visual art as a metaphor for music and art in general.

1.waltherHere, Walther von Stolzing is a sort of hippy painter who is more than ready to splash paint around in a way that shocks the good burgers.  Hans Sachs is sympathetic to his iconoclasm.  Sachs is a sort of aging hippy.  Beckmesser is the pedantic burger who sticks by the rules but when anarchy breaks out at the end of Act 2 everyone shifts position. Sachs reverts to the rules and brings Walther along with him to win the prize; Eva of course, in a rather conventional way while Beckmesser shows shocking disregard for the proprieties and is rejected.

2.churchHere’s the rub.  KW can stage the piece with all kinds of weird elements, including Hans Sachs incinerating the production team and the German artistic pantheon dancing as a can-can line, but we still have heilige Deutsche Kunst and a commoditized woman as competition prize.  It’s as difficult to find a redeeming feature here as it is in, say, Madama Butterfly, and the director can’t quite pull off a coherent reinterpretation.  Full marks for trying though!

3.meisternMusically it’s OK.  Klaus Florian Vogt is a wonderful Walther.  His singing is definitely one of the productions highlights.  Franz Hawlata is a dramatically convincing Sachs but vocally challenged.  Michael Volle is first rate as Beckmesser, both dramatically and vocally.  Michaela Kaune, as Eva, is a bit mixed.  Sometimes she’s fine, sometimes she sounds quite strained.  Sebastian Weigle is OK in the pit but hardly sets the world alight.

4.sachs_evaThis is a very busy production and also quite dark so very hard to film.  Video director Andreas Morell does OK but there are places where it’s very confusing.  On Blu-ray at least one can see what is filmed.  I worry about what this looks like on DVD because Blu-ray is barely adequate picturewise.  The DTS-HD sound though is full and spacious and generally satisfactory.

5.riotThere’s a half hour “making of” bonus on the disc.  It’s not especially revelatory and I could have used more explanation of what the production team was trying to do.  It’s actually more informative about how the video was shot; the first “live” recording at Bayreuth.  Subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish.

6.deutschekunstIt’s an interesting and bold production but I’m not convinced it answers the questions it sets out to address.


15 thoughts on “Can Bayreuth really tackle Meistersinger?

    • It’s not “wrong” but it is problematic. “Heilige” and “Deutsche” carry a lot of baggage given R.Wagner’s views and later German history. When Sachs sings that even though Germany may fall to a foreign conqueror “holy German art” will endure one is entitled to ask what or who is holy and/or German. When one looks at a history that included Meistersinger being the only opera produced at Bayreuth in 1944 one has to ask “why?”. These are questions that K.Wagner is seeking to explore in this production and think she is right, and brave, to do so.

      • But that is like saying that Mozart’s doctors were incompetent because they could not perform a kidney transplant.

        Besides, with Wagner you can not just take a few soundbites and declare it as the entire message of the work.

  1. John, I did find it refreshing to see a review of this production that didn’t just dismiss it and heap scorn on it. I haven’t seen it, but so many reviewers just decided to call it stupid. Meistersinger was one of the first operas I saw ( in the mid-70s–in English BTW) and quite frankly I was shocked by “heilige Deutsche Kunst” given the unpleasentness in Germany in the ’30s and 40’s–quite frankly I am suprised it is still performed. You are also one of the few people I have seen even mention the daughter as chattel–something else I found disturbing. Like so much of Wagner I love (much of–too loooooong) the music but have trouble with the messages. I am looking forward to see what Herheim does with this work when it does eventually come to the Met.

    • If one looks at the messaging in operas there ought to be quite a long list of ones that perhaps ought not still to be performed, at least without radical reinterpretation. Madama Butterfly would top my list.

      K. Wagner’s production is brimming with interesting ideas; probably too many to fully explore in even a 5 hour opera but at least she tried. A more experienced director might have been more selective perhaps. I see the Herheim has been getting very positive reviews in Salzburg.

      • I’m not saying Meistersinger–or any opera for that matter–shouldn’t be performed–I actually do love it It is just that very few reviewers of productions of this work want to deal with some of the issues it presents–its Wagner’s more or less “sunny” opera–see some of the negative reviews of Herheim’s recent staging who long for a “traditonal” staging. Maybe K. Wagner used too blunt an instrument in this production–but based on your review I plan on checking it out. Nothing can be more racist than Turnadot–an opera on so many levels I totally hate–but hey people want to hear loud voices sing it–I don’t have to go.

  2. I found the production interesting, but often shortcoming of what I expected. The singing also was somewhat mediocre, though I can’t recall whom I found worst or best.
    To me, the shocking part isn’t “heil’ge deutsche Kunst” — even as a decidedly left-leaning German (pardon my English) I find little wrong with that. Yes, the phrasing is antiquated, yes, nowadays such language would sound exceedingly nationalistic. Nevertheless, I can understand the sentiment of honouring German cultural traditions. No, the shocking part is “falsche welsche Majestät”. “Welsch”, while originally referring to the Guelphic faction (House Welf) later came to refer to the French and Italians, occasionally Latins in general (but mostly the French. It’s always the French.). The reason Meistersinger is Wagner’s most nationalistic opera is that denouncement of and warning against foreign, non-Germanic — French influences. Which, mind you, includes most of modernity.

    • Interesting, I always assumed Welsch was cognate with (Old) English Welsh which meant foreigner; which is how it came to refer to the non English speakers on the other side of Offa’s dyke.

      One assumes too that the accusation of Frenchness was a swipe at the doubtfully holy and doubtfully German (in Wagnerian terms) Meyerbeer

  3. All the present-day misgivings about the end of “Die Meistersinger” come from the point of view of the people coming from the future that was unknown to Wagner and his contemporaries and all of it based on an excerpt that, according to some stories, even he initially believed was slightly out of place, but which does have a certain historical, social and philosophical logic attached to it if we only cease to look at it from our day and place it in the proper context.

    Also, and I wrote it earlier, the first mistake with Wagner is to latch on to a couple of quotes and soundbites and present it as “the message” or “his views”. “Die Meistersinger” and it’s ending are a prime example. There is far more to the work then that and most of it is not only incompatible with the “unpleasentness of the 30s and 40s” but is in fact the anti-thesis of it. Take Hans Sachs…This is a character who in act 1 is pictured as open to outsiders, to novelties, who rejects blind obedience to rules, social conventions and authority and dissents from the prevailing opinion. Yes, the same Sachs that says the much-maligned warning at the end but that in fact is IMO the point, the discussion of the relation between the traditional and novel and how together they form a coherent wholesome entity. And “Die Meistersinger” is not the only Wagner work that deals with that subject. One can see it in act 2 of “Die Walkure” during the dialogue between Wotan and Fricka.

  4. “Meistersinger being the only opera produced at Bayreuth in 1944 one has to ask “why?” Because nearly all of the Nazis, including Hitler, had petite bourgeoisie tastes. (Lehár and Puccini were Hitlers real “favorite composers) . A little like 1940’s version of Daily Mail readers. To the untrained ear – and to those that cannot see and hear its clear Schopenhauerian influences – it is the “simplest” and most “accessible” of Wagner’s latter works. It allowed the Nazi “elite” to pretend to be intellectual while really all they wanted to do was listen to pretty tunes and look at pretty costumes.

  5. I’m sorry to be late to such an interesting discussion, but wanted to pitch in a) thanks for an interesting review and b) 2 cents. From your description it sounds as though the KW production is exploring (or trying to explore) the question of the ideal community, and ideal individual/community relations, which are so prominent in Meistersinger and (in my view) left intriguingly ambiguous at the end. At the very least, I think there’s room for a lot of interpretative debate (which is one of the reasons I love Meistersinger.) Do you think it’s just wishful thinking on my part to say that, as 19th-century operas go (!!) Meistersinger’s treatment of Eva isn’t half bad? It’s at least made clear (and not, I think, censured) that she has a mind and a heart of her own and is determined to use them. And Sachs himself actually calls Pogner out on the commodification; unless I’m misremembering that it’s in response to this that Pogner affirms that Eva has right of veto, with which Sachs is forced to give himself content. I always find myself bracing for the indictment of falsche welsche Majestät, which seems extrinsic to the themes of the work as a whole. Do you know what Richard Jones did with it? Herheim’s use of it was brilliant, I thought; McVicar took a “moving along, nothing to see here” approach which made sense with his Sachs characterization but was, imho, no less problematic for doing so.

  6. I think KW is trying to explore the relationship of individual to community and that links directly to her interest in exploring the work and its performance history at Bayreuth, because that raises issues of what kind of community is the individual relating to.

    I haven’t seen as many Meistersingern as you so I don’t have the same ability to compare across productions. I’m sure many interpretations are possible, including confronting or skating over ideas that seem alien today. What I thought interesting with KW was that she was meta-interpreting; i.e. interpreting how the work had both been interpreted, non-interpreted and used. What I find interesting about this discussion is that hardly anyone wants to go there, preferring to discuss Die Meistersinger rather than her production of it.

    FWIW, I think your point about Eva is a good one. Especially if one takes the 16th century setting literally.

  7. Pingback: David McVicar’s Die Meistersinger | operaramblings

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